Right and righter

The controversy over the inclusion of the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon in an NCERT political science textbook is both absurd and typical. Absurd because everyone, it seems, is trying to be more offended than everyone else. And typical because it substitutes offence for real politics. The professors in charge have quite rightly resigned alleging the integrity of their project has been impeached. Meanwhile, human resources development minister Kapil Sibal has defended his actions — instructing the NCERT to withdraw the cartoon and to stop distributing the books — entirely within the parameters of the freedom of speech. Such a freedom, he argues, is only applicable when all parties are mature. Allowing impressionable students (class XI students, who are 17 years old!) to be exposed to offensive material cannot be allowed.
In the cartoon in question, Nehru is cracking a whip while standing behind Ambedkar, who is himself holding a whip and sitting on a snail that is the Constitution of India. Ambedkar’s grandson, and several intellectuals, have come out in the open to say that he would not have found — indeed, did not find — the 1949 cartoon sketched by the eminent Keshav Shankar Pillai (of Shankar’s Weekly fame) offensive in the least. People who have taken the trouble to look at the textbook say the text accompanying the cartoon addresses the time taken for the Constitution to be drafted. Prof. Suhas Palshikar, the NCERT official who approved the inclusion of this cartoon and whose office in Pune was vandalised by the Republican Panthers of India following his resignation and refusal to apologise, has stated that including the cartoon was an attempt at capturing the vibrant field of political satire that goes a long way towards keeping politicians honest.
All these are perfectly legitimate defences of the cartoon, and of its inclusion in a textbook on political science: Where else, after all, will a student go to learn about the political sphere and the satires that try to keep it in check? But rather than offering another defence of the cartoon in this controversy, I think it is time to ask some questions that no one in today’s political spectrum seems to want to ask. I have two in mind: First, what is the relation between representation and politics? And second, why is offence so easily made a substitute for politics?
Take feminism. For years, feminists have objected to condescending representations of women — and for that reason, they might object now to the casual sexism of the Delhi Daredevils’ offer of premium “damaad (son-in-law) seats” during the IPL. Taking offence at this is an example of fighting a battle at the level of representation, which is extremely important to do. But feminism has also taught us that it is not enough to fight simply at the level of representation: one’s critique also has to be directed at the material realities that govern the way in which women and men live their lives. Thus, representation should be taken as a spur to read even more closely rather than shutting down or sanitising reading altogether. If we believe that representation matters, then we will have to stop substituting offence for politics, and start reading more closely. Instead of inspiring censorship, representation should be the trigger that sparks large-scale political change.
Those objecting to the Nehru-Ambedkar cartoon are certainly fighting the battle at the level of representation. They — political parties, activists — do not want any depiction allegedly critical of Ambedkar to be disseminated in textbooks. But what is even more galling than the fact that political satire is being disallowed in the name of personal offence is that the groups objecting to the cartoon seem content to allow their discontent to remain at that level. They object to the ill-treatment of dalits, yet they confine themselves to winning easy points by pointing fingers at representation. It is easier for the government to order the removal of a cartoon from a textbook, or the book itself, than it is to ameliorate the material conditions under which dalits are discriminated against or to serve justice for atrocities committed against them. How come the Opposition parties and dalit organisations are not disrupting Parliament to demand justice for victims in the Ramabai Nagar killings of 1997 (one of the questions asked in Anand Patwardhan’s powerful film, Jai Bhim Comrade)?
Instead of taking action, politicians take offence. As things stand, every political party and several activist groups are falling over one another to denounce the cartoon. The rightwing is putting pressure on the UPA, and the government is responding by trying to be even right-er: it has accepted offence as the basis of politics instead of insisting that representation can and should open up debate. Taking offence suggests that one’s position need not be brought under critical scrutiny, that somehow it is beyond reproach. Instead, taking offence needs to be seen for what it is: a partisan anti-intellectualism that denounces representation because it is too lazy to do the heavy lifting of reading and thinking and analysis. Representation is then punished for the laziness of the reader. The offended demands a reversal of the offence, and that reversal, accompanied by mantras of “tolerance”, of “getting along” with everyone regardless of principle or practice, is then considered sufficient politics.
But politics implies not tolerance but engagement: an analytical, informed stand on issues generated by layers of history, culture and literature. A cartoon is a form of political satire that engages structures of power rather than any individual. Representation is not the enemy it is made out to be; it should be an incitement to discourse, and a spur to politics, not a platform for the generation of offence.

The writer is a professor of literature at American University, Washington, DC

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